It’s two a.m. and my 10-year-old is crying and sputtering incoherently at the side of my bed. She didn’t want to wake me up, so instead stands beside me breathing with shallow, quick breaths until I do. When I realize what is going on, I sit up in a panic and rouse my wife. If I had a gun, I would probably have grabbed that, too.
What’s wrong? Are you in pain? Is someone in the house? She can barely muster a response. After a moment she finally says, “I had a bad dream.”
Oh. A bad dream. That’s all. No serial killers at the window. Not a fire in the bathroom. No demonic spirit, sucking the soul out of her little brother (although demonic possession is still on the table for that one). Just a normal, run of the mill nightmare.
Immediately, I deflate. I can feel my shoulders slump forward and my guard lowering, but my body is still pumping with adrenaline. There is no way I am getting back to sleep tonight. My wife looks at me as if to say, “Your turn,” and gets up to use the bathroom.
The Dream of a Good Night’s Sleep
We have four kids. This late-night incident was courtesy of my oldest daughter who had recently been suffering from a series of nightmares. Repeatedly, she found herself in our room in the middle of the night so we could talk her down. The problem is that what we have three other children who also wake us up during the night. Due to their ages, their needs were the standard and expected fare of feedings, diaper changes, and earaches. During each sleepless night, I believed with the conviction of Joan of Arc, that someday I will sleep without interruption. And yet, our oldest, the leader of the children, the brave and wise, the closest to adulthood, is still waking me up. If she cannot sleep through the night, then who can? Is there no hope for a full night’s rest?
As an adult, my dreams are fear-fests. Typically, they are stressful, grotesque representations of work-related situations. We’re adults. We deal with it. Unfortunately, when my daughter came to me with her own stress-induced night terror, my immediate response was, “You are fine. It’s just a dream. It’s not real. Don’t worry about it. Go back to bed.”
How can that possibly be comforting to her? Nightmares are vivid, horrible experiences even for adults. A 1998 study found that 52 percent of returning veterans from Vietnam had nightmares compared to three-percent of the general population. These are traumatic experiences and cause real distress. And yet, I was quick to dismiss my own daughter’s fears. Not everything is as simple as brushing it off as a dream.
Around this time, I decided to take a different tactic with my daughter. I decided to teach her how to lucid dream and take back the night.
The Lucid Dreaming Solution
Lucid dreaming is becoming aware that you are dreaming within a dream. Experienced lucid dreamers can take control of the dream and manipulate it to match their desires and intentions. Some activities might be flying, teleporting to the moon, having sex, or even flying on a dragon, Khaleesi-style. It is only the dreamer’s imagination that limits the possibilities.
The one thing that lucid dreamers learn early on is if you want to maintain and sustain a dream, then you must be courageous. At some point you will face your own six-eyed monster, wearing a sports coat, demanding his updated reports, and dragging you into his torture chamber/conference room. You cannot hide even if you are aware it is only a dream. But you also realize you have the power to take the reins back, change the scene, and regain control.
What if I taught my daughter to become aware in her dreams, face her fears, and conquer her own dragons? I figured it was worth a try even if it meant just one restful night.
Here was the strategy: keep it simple, don’t get too technical, and help her feel empowered. I decided to begin my training in earnest.
The next day we began talking about her dreams, what they might have meant, and how she felt about them. I explained that she could become aware in her dreams and change what is happening if she wanted.
“So, if I’m aware in my dream do I just run away?”
“No. The exact opposite.”
“But I’m scared so why wouldn’t I just fly away. You just said I could fly in my dreams.”
“Yes, you can fly, but you need to confront the monster. You can’t run away from it.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
I’m paraphrasing the conversation, but it went as well as most do with middle-schoolers. However, each morning thereafter I asked her to tell me about her dreams. Some mornings she didn’t remember having any and other mornings they were benign and typical. But, one day she came rushing into my room as I was getting ready for work. She was absolutely beaming and could not wait to tell me about her dream:
“I’m walking in this open space and there is this giant snake and it is attacking everyone and me. I started to run, but I remembered what you told me. I turned back around, told it ‘no, don’t do that!’ and touched it on its head. It turned into a fluffy pillow! Then I got on the pillow and we started flying around! Isn’t that amazing?”
It was amazing. My heart melted.
As a father, one of the most painful things to watch is your child dealing with the non-physical pain in their head. How can we help if we can’t bandage it, hug it, or kiss it? But this worked. It felt like I had conquered the shadow monster in Stranger Things.
Now, I would be lying if I said that was the end of nightmares for my daughter. Even today she deals with bad dreams like the rest of us. And she isn’t always successful at becoming lucid and taking control. However, she knows she has the power and courage to overcome the fear and that is all that matters to me.
Anthony Lacianese is a father of four from Akron, Ohio that teaches lucid dreaming to toddlers and teenagers alike. He works in healthcare and his nightmares are inspired by excel spreadsheets, unread emails, and unending conference calls.